Constitution Hill, the exciting pretender to the Champion Hurdle crown, returned to action with aplomb last weekend but Honeysuckle will have a chance to make the case for a title defence at Fairyhouse on Sunday.
Even with 3½ months to Cheltenham’s championship, anticipation is growing of an epic Anglo-Irish clash between the two unbeaten superstars in March.
Constitution Hill’s spectacular rout of Epatante in Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth on just his fourth career start saw him raised 3lb to an official British Horseracing Authority rating of 173 on Tuesday.
That’s just shy of the best figures achieved by past Champion Hurdle stars such as Faugheen, Istabraq and Hurricane Fly but 8lb superior to Honeysuckle.
However, the dual Champion Hurdle-winning mare’s 7lb sex allowance means there is little between the pair on official classification.
Honeysuckle is on course to make her own eagerly anticipated return to action in Sunday’s “Winter Festival” highlight, the €120,000 Bar One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle.
Victory will give Henry de Bromhead’s hugely popular horse a record fourth win in the race and stretch her own unbeaten run to 17.
“She’s great, not a bother on her. She’s really good and seems in good form. Everyone seems happy with her.
“She’s done everything she needed to do more or less, she seems good, seems in good form and all is good, we’re happy,” the trainer said on Tuesday.
Victory will also give Rachael Blackmore a record fourth win in the race, eclipsing both Charlie Swan and Gary Hutchinson who rode Solerina to a hat-trick of Hatton’s Grace wins between 2003-05.
A total of eight entries were left in against Honeysuckle at Tuesday’s latest acceptance stage but the headline act could start the shortest priced favourite for Hatton’s Grace glory that she’s ever done.
Last year she won at 2-5 while in 2020 Honeysuckle scored at 4-11.
Willie Mullins has left in three against her, including the top-class stayer Klassical Dream, while Gordon Elliott also has three options topped by Teahupoo.
Jessica Harrington will rely on Ashdale Bob but summed up general expectations on Tuesday when she said: “I’m not saying he will put it up to Honeysuckle, but it would be nice to finish second to her.
“Honeysuckle definitely is a legend in our lifetime and people should go out and watch these horses race in the flesh.”
Ground conditions at Fairyhouse are currently yielding to soft with little change anticipated for the weekend.
Sunday sees the first triple-Grade One programme of the jumps season with some top novices expected to line up for both the Royal Bond Hurdle and Drinmore Chase.
The last Royal Bond winner not produced by either Mullins or Elliott was The Tullow Tank in 2013.
He carried Barry Connell’s colours and the owner-turned-trainer has a prime candidate again in the unbeaten Marine Nationale.
The Dublin businessman also has a shot at the Drinmore with his promising chaser, Enniskerry.
However, Honeysuckle apart, perhaps the most anticipated weekend runner at Fairyhouse could be the bumper champion Facile Vega who is entered to make his jumping debut in a maiden hurdle on Saturday.
Unbeaten in four bumper starts, the son of Quevega is already as short as 7-4 for the Supreme Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, a market in which Marine Nationale is 16-1.
Of his exciting prospect, Mullins recently said: “Over the past few years, I haven’t seen a horse I’m looking forward to as much as Facile Vega.”
Separately, Ireland’s champion trainer is unlikely to be represented in the King George VI Chase at Kempton this Christmas after taking out both Galopin Des Champs and last year’s winner, Tornado Flyer, on Tuesday.
The leading Irish hope among 13 left in at the latest acceptance stage is de Bromhead’s Envoi Allen, winner of Down Royal’s Grade One over three miles earlier this month.
More immediately, de Bromhead will switch focus to the flat on Wednesday with a single runner, Tourgar Raude, at Dundalk.
Champion jockey Colin Keane has half a dozen rides on the all-weather and none more eye-catching than on Dreal Deal for Ronan McNally in the concluding handicap.
The Grade Two-winning hurdler won six in a row during last autumn and winter while he didn’t run badly last time out at the Curragh.